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Science Communication

June GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

June GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major Story

With June being the month when the world’s oceans are celebrated with World Ocean Day (8th June) and the month when the UN’s Ocean Conference took place, it seemed apt to dedicate our major story to this precious, diverse and remote landscape.

In fact, so remote and inaccessible are vast swathes of our oceans, that 95% of them are unseen (or unvisited) by human eyes. Despite their inaccessibility, humans are hugely reliant on the oceans.  According to The World Bank, the livelihoods of approximately 10 to 12% of the global population depends on healthy oceans and more than 90%of those employed by capture fisheries are working in small-scale operations in developing countries. Not only that, but the oceans trap vast amounts of heat from the atmosphere, limiting global temperature rise.

Yet we take this valuable and beautiful resource for granted.

As greenhouse gas emissions rise, the oceans must absorb more and more heat. The ocean is warmer today than it has been since recordkeeping began in 1880. Over the past two decades this has resulted in a significant change in the composition of the upper layer of water in our oceans. Research published this month confirms that ocean temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, with dire consequences.

Corals are highly sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. The 2015 to 2016 El Niño was particularly powerful. As its effects faded, ocean temperatures in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans remained high, meaning 70 percent of corals were exposed to conditions that can cause bleaching. Almost all of the 29 coral reefs on the U.N. World Heritage list have now been damaged by bleaching.

This month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that bleaching was subsiding for the first time in three years. Some of the affected corals are expected to take 10 to 15 years to recover, in stress-free conditions. But as global and ocean temperatures continue to rise, corals are being pushed closer to their limits.

Warmer ocean temperatures are also causing fish to travel to cooler waters, affecting the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on their daily catch to keep families afloat and changing marine ecosystems forever. And early this month, millions of sea-pickles – a mysterious warm water loving sea creature- washed up along the western coast of the U.S, from Oregon to Alaska. Though scientists aren’t quite sure what caused the bloom, speculation is focused on warming water temperatures.

It is not only warming waters which are threatening the world’s oceans. Our thirst for convenience means a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. Campaigners believe that the environmental crisis brought about by the demand for disposable plastic products will soon rival climate change.

In 2015 researchers estimated that 5-13 million tonnes of plastics flow into the world’s oceans annually, much coming from developing Asian nations where waste management practices are poor and the culture for recycling is limited. To tackle the problem, China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines vouched to try and keep more plastics out of ocean waters. And, with a plastic bottle taking up to 450 years to break down completely, what happens to it if you drop it in the ocean? Some of it, will likely find it’s way to the Arctic. Indeed, recent research suggests that there are roughly 300 billion pieces of floating plastic in the polar ocean alone.

A bottle dropped in the water off the coast of China is likely be carried eastward by the north Pacific gyre and end up a few hundred miles off the coast of the US. Photograph: Graphic. Credit: If you drop plastic in the ocean, where does it end up? The Guardian. Original Source: Plastic Adrift by oceanographer Erik van Sebille. Click to run.

And it’s not only the ocean waters that are feeling the heat. As the demand for resources increases, the need to find them does too. The sea floor is a treasure trove of mineral and geological resources, but deep-sea mining is not without environmental concerns. Despite the ethical unease, nations are rushing to buy up swathes of the ocean floor to ensure their right to mine them in the future. But to realise these deep-water mining dreams, advanced technological solutions are needed, such as the remote-controlled robots Nautilus Minerals will use to exploit the Bismarck Sea, off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

What you might have missed

Lightning reportedly ignited a deadly wildfire in Portugal, seen here by ESA’s Proba-V satellite on 18 June.

“On June 17, 2017, lightning reportedly ignited a deadly wildfire that spread across the mountainous areas of Pedrógão Grande—a municipality in central Portugal located about 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Lisbon”, reported NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The death toll stands at 62 people (as reported by BBC News). The fires were seen from space by satellites of both NASA and ESA – European Space Agency satellites.

Large wildfires are also becoming increasing common and severe in boreal forests around the world. Natural-color images captured by NASA satellites on June 23rd, shows wildfires raging near Lake Baikal and the Angara River in Siberia. At the same time, a new study has found a link between lightning storms and boreal wildfires, with lightning strikes thought to be behind massive fire years in Alaska and northern Canada. This infographic further explores the link between wildfires triggered both by lightning and human activities.

Meanwhile, in the world’s southernmost continent the crack on the Larsen C ice-shelf continues its inexorable journey across the ice. The rift is set to create on of the largest iceberg ever recorded. Now plunged in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, obtaining images of the crack’s progress is becoming a little tricker. NASA used the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) on Landsat 8 to capture a false-color image of the crack. The new data, which shows an acceleration of the speed at which the crack is advancing, has lead scientists to believe that calving of the iceberg to the Weddell Sea is imminent.

Links we liked

The EGU story

This month saw the launch of two new division blogs over on the EGU Blogs: The Solar-Terrestrial Sciences and the Geodynamics Division Blogs. The EGU scientific divisions blogs share division-specific news, events, and activities, as well as updates on the latest research in their field.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

In a departure from the usual posts we feature on the blog, today Conor Purcell (a freelance science writer) brings you a thought provoking science fiction piece. Grab a drink and dive into this geology inspired adventure!

“It’s typical geology for a rocky planet” K reported. “Captured beneath the ocean at its northern pole, the core is a mix of metamorphic and sedimentary rock, with sand and fossilized organisms of the non-intelligent form. Nothing unusual.”

“We should use our new systems for this analysis,” It thought to itself. “Best to begin with a rocky planet.” K was the collective thinking entity of its group, a unified consortium of representatives now located across interstellar space: their task to find intelligent life beyond itself.

Here, on the orbiting cube, lying lengthways in front of K, and secured within the hold of the onboard core analyser, was a long cylindrical section – a core – of rock and mud which had been excavated from the planet below. K was now beginning the routine inspection performed on each of the cores acquired across the surveyed planets.

“Inspect all elements and produce time-series of environmental parameters relevant for the planet” K commanded itself.

It was then that something unusual triggered a notification in its Thought Centre – something it had never experienced. “What is this?” it asked.

For millennia, K had been searching for evidence of intelligent life on exoplanets beyond its own host star. In earlier times ground based receivers had been constructed and used to scour the endless black sky, and although life had been discovered to exist almost everywhere, without exception it took the form of mindless cellular or multicellular organisms. No trace of another Type 1 civilization had ever been found. Even as K’s technology advanced, observing and measuring the atmospheres of millions of remote planets to seek out the signatures of machine and biological life, and now even visiting those remote worlds, no sign of intelligence had yet been discovered.

What now caught the attention of K’s Thought Centre was a narrow section of fine material which appeared to have been laid down in a remarkably short period of time, during just twenty solar orbits. “This geology is unique,” K thought.

“On a planet that contains layers stacked typically over tens of thousands or millions of years, what kind of mechanism could produce such a pattern?” it asked itself. “A rapid fluvial event could produce something like this” it responded. “But not exactly: the material here is far too fine to be explained by known terrestrial, oceanic or atmospheric forces in the universe,” it thought. K could not explain it.

Far below the orbiting cube on which the analysis was being performed, over extensive distances from the poles to the equatorial belt, the K machines proceeded to core their way across the planet. For a rocky sphere of this size, two hundred cores would be drilled and sampled. The complete process would take a little over one solar orbit.

“What do we think about this anomaly?” K asked itself. “We should compute an age model for the section.”

“The section in question is relatively young, just 2.167 million solar orbits in age” it calculated. “It is wedged at the intersection between two geological epochs, marked by a large (25 degrees Kelvin) and incredibly rapid (300 years) temperature increase across the transition.”

K next extracted a sample from each of the section’s annually laid sediments and instructed itself to begin the weighing of trace elements. Chemical analysis of the ratios of isotopes would spell out a varying signal across time, detailing past temperatures and planetary ice volume. This kind of varying palaeoclimate history had been discovered on planets throughout the galaxy. It was ubiquitous.

But, amazingly, unlike the millions of geological cores previously processed, this short section presented no ordinary signal: the pattern generated by the weight of these trace elements was encrypted.

K had not seen anything like it before and inside its Thought Centre an alert was raised: no signal in the known universe had ever been found encrypted.

“Perform an analysis on the encryption, decipher, and display results,” K commanded.

“The signal has been encrypted using a very basic cypher, and can be unravelled easily.”

The deciphering took just microseconds, and right there and then the signal was laid bare, changing K’s understanding of the universe forever.

After millennia of exploration, believing it was the lone thinking entity in the universe, here was evidence conveying the existence of another intelligence, a message sublimely detailed in the universal language of mathematics. It read:

‘This was once an inhabited place which we called Earth.’

By Conor Purcell Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com.

Enmeshed in the gears of publishing – lessons from working as a young editor

Enmeshed in the gears of publishing – lessons from working as a young editor

Editors of scientific journals play an important role in the process research publication. They act as the midpoint between authors and reviewers, and set the direction of a given journal. However, for an early career scientist like me (I only defended my PhD in early December 2016) the intricacies of editorial work remained somewhat mysterious. Many academic journals tend to appoint established, more senior scientists to these roles, and while most scientists interact with editors regularly their role is not commonly taught to more junior researchers. I was fortunate to get the chance to work, short term, as an associate editor at Nature Geoscience in the first 4 months of this year (2017). During that time, I learned a number of lessons about scientific publishing that I felt could be valuable to the community at large.

What does an editor actually do?

The role of the editor is often hidden to readers; in both paywalled and open-access journals the notes and thoughts editors make on submitted manuscripts are generally kept private. One of the first things to appreciate is that editors judge whether a manuscript meets a set of editorial thresholds that would make it appropriate for the journal in question, rather than whether the study is correctly designed or the results are robust. I’d argue most editors are looking for a balance of an advance beyond existing literature and the level of interest a manuscript offers for their audience.

At each step of the publication process, from initial submission, through judging referee comments, to making a final decision, the editor is making a judgement whether the manuscript still meets those editorial thresholds.

The vast majority of the papers I got the chance to read were pretty fascinating, but since the journal I was working for is targeted at the whole Earth science community some of these were a bit too esoteric, and as such didn’t fit the thresholds we set to appeal to the journal audience.

I actually found judging papers on the basis of editorial thresholds refreshing – in our capacity as peer reviewers, most scientists are naturally sceptical of methodology and conclusions in other studies, but as an editor in most cases I was able to take the authors conclusions at face-value, and leave the critical assessment to referees.

That’s where the important difference lies; even though editors are generally scientists by training, since they are naturally not experts in every field that they receive papers from, it’s paramount to find reviewers who have the appropriate expertise and to ask them the right set of questions. In journals with academic editors, the editors may have more leeway to make critical comments, but impartiality is key.

Much of this may be already clear to many readers, but perhaps less so to more junior scientists. Many of the editorial decisions are somewhat subjective, like gauging the level of interest to a journal audience.

In the context of open access research journals, I think it’s worth asking whether the editorial decisions should also be made openly readable by authors and referees – this might aid potential authors in deciding how to pitch their articles to a given journal. This feeds into my next point – what are journals looking for?

By which metrics do journals judge studies?
The second big thing I picked up is that the amount of work does not always equate to a paper being appropriate for a given journal. Invariably, authors have clearly worked hard, and it’s often really tricky to explain to authors that their study is not a good fit for the journal you’re working for.

Speaking somewhat cynically, journals run for profit are interested in articles that can sell more copies or subscriptions. Since the audiences are primarily scientists, “scientific significance” will be a dominant consideration, but Nature and subsidiary journals also directly compare the mainstream media coverage of some of their articles with that of Science – that competition is important to their business.

Many other authors have discussed the relative merits of “prestige” journals (including Nobel prize winners – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/09/nobel-winner-boycott-science-journals), and all I’ll add here is what strikes me most is that ‘number of grad student hours worked’ is often not related to those articles that would be of a broader interest to the more mainstream media. The majority of articles don’t attract media attention of course, but I’d also argue that “scientific significance” is not strongly linked to the amount of time that goes into each study.

In the long run, high quality science tends to ensure a strong readership of any journal, but in my experience as an editor the quality of science in submitted manuscripts tends to be universally strong – the scientific method is followed, conclusions are robust, but in some cases they’re just pitched at the wrong audience. I’d argue this is why some studies have found in meta-analysis that in the majority of cases, articles that are initially rejected are later accepted in journals of similar ‘prestige’ (Weller et al. 2001, Moore et al. 2017).

As such, it’s imperative that authors tailor their manuscripts to the appropriate audience. Editors from every journal are picking from the same pool of peer reviewers, and so the quality of reviews should also be consistent, which ultimately determines the robustness of a study; so to meet editorial thresholds, prospective authors should think about who is reading the journal.
It’s certainly a fine line to walk – studies that are confirmatory of prior work tend to attract fewer readers, and as such editors may be less inclined to take an interest, but these are nonetheless important for the scientific canon.

In my short time as an editor I certainly didn’t see a way around these problems, but it was eye-opening to see the gears of the publication system – the machine from within, as it were.

Who gets to review?
One of the most time-consuming jobs of an editor is finding referees for manuscripts. It generally takes as long, if not far longer, than reading the manuscript in detail!

The ideal set of referees should first have the required set of expertise to properly assess the paper in question, and then beyond that be representative of the field at large. Moreover, they need to have no conflict of interest with the authors of the paper. There are an awful lot of scientists working in the world at the moment, but in some sub-fields it can be pretty hard to find individuals who fit all these categories.

For example, some studies in smaller research fields with a large number of senior co-authors often unintentionally rule out vast swathes of their colleagues as referees, simply because they have collaborated extensively.

Ironically, working with everyone in your field leaves no-one left to review your work! I have no doubt that the vast majority of scientists would be able to referee a colleagues work impartially, but striving for truly impartial review should be an aim of an editor.

As mentioned above, finding referees who represent the field is also important. More senior scientists have a greater range of experience, but tend to have less time available to review, while junior researchers can often provide more in-depth reviews of specific aspects. Referees from a range of geographic locations help provide diversity of opinion, as well as a fair balance in terms of gender.

It was certainly informative to compare the diversity of authors with the diversity of the referees they recommended, who in general tend to be more male dominated and more US-centric than the authors themselves.

A positive way of looking at this might be that this represents a diversifying Earth science community; recommended referees tend to be more established scientists, so greater author diversity might represent a changing demographic. On the other hand, it’s certainly worth bearing in mind that since reviewing is increasingly becoming a metric by which scientists themselves are judged, recommending referees who are more diverse is a way of encouraging a more varied and open community.

What’s the job like?
Editorial work is definitely rewarding – I certainly felt part of the scientific process, and providing a service to authors and the readership community is the main remit of the job.

I got to read a lot of interesting science from a range of different places, and worked with some highly motivated people. It’s a steep learning curve, and tends to be consistently busy; papers are always coming in, so there’s always a need to keep working.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’d also suggest that scientists could work as editors at almost any stage in their careers, and it offers a neat place between the world of academia and science communication, which I found fascinating.

By Robert Emberson, freelance science writer

References

Moore, S., Neylon, C., Eve, M. P., O’Donnell, D. P., and Pattinson, D. 2017. “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence. Palgrave Communications, 3, 16105

Weller A.C. 2001 Editorial Peer Review: Its Strengths and Weaknesses. Information Today: Medford NJ

Announcing the winners of the EGU Photo Contest 2017!

The selection committee received over 300 photos for this year’s EGU Photo Contest, covering fields across the geosciences. Participants at the 2017 General Assembly have been voting for their favourites throughout the week  of the conference and there are three clear winners. Congratulations to 2017’s fantastic photographers!

Penitentes in the Andes by Christoph Schmidt (distributed by imaggeo.egu.eu). This photo was taken in the Bolivian Andes at an altitude of around 4400 m. The climatic conditions favour the formation of so-called penitents, i.e. long and pointed remains of a formerly comprehensive snow field.

Symbiosis of fire, ice and water by Michael Grund (distributed by imaggeo.egu.eu). This picture was taken at Storforsen, an impressive rapid in the Pite River in northern Sweden.

Movement of the ancient sand by Elizaveta Kovaleva (distributed by imaggeo.egu.eu). In the Zion National Park you can literally touch and see the dynamic of the ancient sand dunes.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

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